The Idea of Perfection
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Australian novelist Kate Grenville has won praise from readers and critics alike for her acute psychological portraits and her genius for portraying states of human feeling. In The Idea of Perfection, Grenville, winner of Britain's prestigious Orange Prize, brings her discerning knowledge of human strengths and frailties to bear upon a pair of unlikely soul mates. In the process, she offers an unforgettable study of the fragile structures of emotion that may either connect us to others or collapse without warning.
The Idea of Perfection is literally about a bridge: a fictitious wooden span near Karakarook in rural New South Wales. Known to the locals as Bent Bridge, it has been damaged, though not destroyed, by a mass of drifting timber that struck its central supports during a flood. Although apparently weakened, the bridge remains structurally viable, and it has become an object of fierce debate in the town. Should the bridge be saved as part of a campaign to preserve the region's heritage, or should it be torn down to make room for a more modern structure? This question divides the townsfolk yet brings together two newcomers to Karakarooka man and a woman who yearn to build emotional bridges but fear that they lack the tools to do so.
Harley Savage, a tall, unfashionable woman with a love of folk artifacts, has come to Karakarook to help establish a heritage museum. Douglas Cheeseman, a large-eared, socially maladroit engineer, has been sent to supervise the demolition of Bent Bridge. Like the bridge, both have survived potentially crushing blows. He has been divorced. She has been divorced twice and, in a most devastating fashion, lost a third husband to suicide. Thus far, like the bridge, they have been bent but not broken, but their futures are very much in doubt. Meanwhile, a self-absorbed ex-model named Felicity Porcelline struggles to fend off middle age as she flirts with a Chinese butcher whose ethnic background both disturbs and intrigues her.
While aptly conveying the pain that comes with mature self-examination (as well as the consequences of failing to see oneself honestly), The Idea of Perfection never loses its gentle sense of irony and humor. Through Grenville's perceptive but uncondemning eyes, human failings are revealed as both funny and pathetically endearing.
Born in Sydney, Australia, in 1950, Kate Grenville holds degrees from the University of Sydney and the University of Colorado. Before establishing a permanent home in Australia, she spent seven years working and studying in France, England, and the United States. Now one of Australia's most prominent writers of fiction, Ms. Grenville has won recognition for such novels as Dreamhouse, Lilian's Story, and Dark Places, published in America as Albion's Story. The Idea of Perfection is her fifth novel. She resides in Sydney with her husband, daughter, and son.
The relation between your title, The Idea of Perfection, and your subject matter is not immediately obvious, since your character studies in this book seem more concerned with weaknesses and failings than with anything "perfect." So, how did you hit upon this title? Come to think of it, why the idea of perfection, instead of perfection itself?
The starting-point for the book was a quote by Leonardo da Vinci describing the kind of arch that can support a bridge: "an arch is two weaknesses which together make a strength". This seemed to me an insightful way to describe a relationshipa marriage, for example. That quote was my touchstone as I wrote a book about two people who fall in love in spite of their flaws. It wasn't until I was writing the blurb, just before publication, that I saw that their story was really part of a larger idea. I found myself writing "This is a book about two people haunted by the idea of perfection." In that moment I understood what until then had been more a matter of intuition: that although perfection may seem like an ideal to strive for, it can also be destructive. Harley and Douglas learn to forgive themselves and each other for not being perfect. Felicity doesn't learn. In her, the idea of perfection has become a need to control: she's trying to put a cork in the volcano of real life. Eventually that cork has to pop.
The rather bleak landscape of Karakarook exerts considerable influence on your characters, and yet you choose main characters who have both come to the town from elsewhere. What led you to focus principally on outsiders instead of townsfolk?
For years I've wanted to write about the Australian countryside, but, like most Australians, I've only got a tourist's knowledge of it. I thought that if I disobeyed that basic rule of writingwrite about what you knowI'd write a thin and inauthentic book. Eventually I realised that I didn't have to fake up a story about the country itselfI could write truthfully about how the country feels like to a townie like myself.
Australia lives with a strange contradictionour national image of ourselves is one of the Outback, and yet nearly all us live in big cities. Move outside the coastal fringe, and Australia can feel like a foreign country. I don't think I'm the only Australian who feels vaguely guilty about that, as if we're all going along with a story that isn't quite true. It was interesting, and freeing, for me to explore that.
Your use of italicized phrases is striking. It seems to me that you often use this device to call attention, not to ideas that have been precisely stated, but rather to moments when the characters are saying or thinking something very different from what they mean. What do you have to tell us about your use of italics?
Words are a pretty blunt instrument. There's always going to be slippage between the words and the infinite complexities of a thought. As a writer I find that frustrating, but as a social animal I wouldn't have it any other way.
The Idea of Perfection is about people hiding their real selves from each other, and possibly from themselves. However, I didn't want for those real selves to be entirely hidden from the reader. Reading can be a kind of trance of engagementthe "willing suspension of disbelief" that's the pleasure of the novel. My challenge in the writing was to find a way to keep that, while still signaling to the reader not to take the words at face value. Italics seemed one way to draw attention to the words, but with a light touch. I wanted to put a little atmosphere of irony around them, the way tone of voice might do in a conversation.
In the same vein, your characters like to wrap their ideas in clichés and euphemisms that, on one level, seem to cushion them against the harshness of life. On another level, though, their word choices can make it harder for them to recognize and confront their real problems? Are you suggesting that people normally use language as an instrument of self-deception?
Language is an instrument of self-deception whether we want to use it that way or notwords are only ever going to approximate the various tumults that can go on in the human heart. If a person needs to hide from their own feelings, it's a simple matter to slip the right words between themselves and the experience, like a screen that muffles and distorts. Felicity is leaving a trail of emotional devastation behind her, but in thinking of each new destructive moment as just a "little awkwardness," she never needs to face what she's doing. Harley accuses herself of having a "dangerous streak," and need never look behind the words to remember the horror that they screen.
I don't think it's altogether a bad thing. A screen can have its uses from time to time, like soft lighting. It's when the screen replaces the reality that the problems start.
Your novel brings together two stories about male/female relationships: Douglas Cheeseman and Harley Savage, and Alfred Chang and Felicity Porcelline. Because these relationships are so different, it is almost surprising to see them in the same novel. Are there ways in which the two relationships help to shed light on each other?
Douglas and Harley both think they've got too much unhappy baggage to be able to make a new relationship. Their awareness of their own inadequacies threatens to sabotage the attraction they feel. They're also aware of each others' failingsthey see a mirror-image of their own. What they learn over the course of the book is that having unhappy baggage isn't a moral failure, it's just being human. It doesn't mean they're monsters, just that they've lived. Each has a moment of insight where they're able to forgive themselves for not being perfect, and in that moment they're also able to accept the possibility of being loved.
Their journey seemed enough for a book, and while I was writing it I wondered why Felicity was in there, refusing to leave. Right at the end I realised whyshe's what happens if you don't learn that lesson.
Felicity is so frightened of not being perfectfrightened of life, in factthat she controls her world with an iron fist. Even her smiles are rationed so that laugh-lines don't mar her beauty. Instead of embracing imperfection the way Harley and Douglas do, she denies it. As a result she never takes the leap that they both do, into an authentic engagement with another person. Instead she squashes and denies life more and more until it boils up around her. She's a desperate prisoner of the tyrant Perfection, and it's not a pretty sight.
Felicity wasn't planned. She came onto the pages fully-formed and perfect in her own terrible way. At one stage I removed her bodily from the book, but a book, like a quilt, needs darks as well as lights, so she went back in.
Your narration permits us to observe events from three different points of view: Harley's, Douglas's, and Felicity's. The missing piece is Freddy Chang. Although he is a convincing, well-drawn character, we see him only from the outside. Since you are concerned about racism and ethnic difference in this novel, why not show us what Freddy is thinking?
My feeling about the book is that it's not so much a portrait of two contrasting relationships, as a portrait of three people coming to terms with the idea of perfection in different ways.
Felicity doesn't have a relationship with Freddy Changhe's just the mirror for her narcissism. The uncontrollable lust she feels for him is nothing to do with him as a person, but is just the eruption of everything that she's repressed and controlled. There've been other Freddys and there will probably be more, in other country towns where her long-suffering husband is posted.
There's a book to be written about Freddy Chang, an Australian whose family was in Australia before most of the Europeans, and yet who is still the "other", the "foreign"but this didn't seem like that book. I was interested in having an "ethnic" character whose ethnicity is not what's important about himand it would be a rare Australian country town without its longstanding Chinese residents. Freddy is a man making the best of his circumstances, finding ways to enjoy a life in spite of being locked in a dying town by aging relatives. He's relaxed about his sexuality and takes life as it comes. If Freddy's story were to be written, I think it would turn out that the idea of perfection has never been an idea that troubled him much.
In The Idea of Perfection American readers will encounter an English-speaking world that will still seem a bit unfamiliar. Certain bits of vocabularywagga, chooks, devon and dunnies, for instanceremind us of this unfamiliarity. Having lived in America, is there anything you would like to say to make Americans feel more at home in the world of the novel?
The life of small country towns is much the same all over the world, I suspect. Outsiders, blundering in, feel conspicuous (and everyone is an outsider who hasn't lived there all their lives). Old histories run like dark seams through every relationship. There are no secrets. Every American country town has chooks and dunnies, though it might think of them as hens and outhouses. It probably has devon and waggas too. The differences in the words are insignificant, because the world is very similar.
Part of the charm and pleasure for Australian readers of American novels is figuring out what some of the words mean. Australians all know what faucets and sidewalks are, having deduced it from books and films, even though we call them taps and footpaths. But the reading experience is enriched by the moment of unfamiliarity. Is a tap any different from a faucet? No, but the language is enhanced by having two words for it, each with their invisible load of associations. Coming across a chook or a dunny in the pages of The Idea of Perfection might seem baffling, but I've tried to make sure that the context draws the picture vividly enough that the bafflement lasts only an instant. Then, I hope, the "otherness" of the word will increase the pleasure of recognizing the familiar.
Fiction is often a form of autobiography. Are there aspects of this novel in which you particularly see yourself?
One of the things I love about writing is the way you can use what you know and what you've experienced, without actually writing about yourself. I've given many of my experiences and perceptions to many of the characters in the book, but none of them is me. Like Harley, I often lead workshops and know the terrible sinking feeling of looking down at your notes and seeing nothing more helpful than "Welcome, etc." there, and the silence congealing around you. Like Douglas, I've been taken up to the top of a major bridge under construction in Sydney, and was rooted to the spot by vertigo. (The difference is, I didn't have to be taken down in a stretcher). Like Felicity, I worry about my "laugh-lines"although not enough to stop laughing.
I'm of an age to know about the baggage we all carry around with us, of things done that shouldn't have been done, and things not done that we wish had been. Regret and remorse are the occupational hazards of being middle-aged, I suppose. But my baggages aren't the same as those of any of these charactersmine are considerably less dramatic.
As for the idea of perfection, writing this book seems to have released me from it.
You are an outstanding writer. What qualities, in your view, help to make an outstanding reader?
An outstanding reader is looking for the deep pleasure of submerging in a story and being carried along by itbut is also interested in the scenery along the way, the little details of fully-alive characters and vividly-drawn places.
An outstanding reader will want words to be more than simply functional. He or she will enjoy richness of language, will take pleasure in the music of a phrase or a tone of irony.
An outstanding reader will enjoy going into unfamiliar territory. He or she will trust the book to guide them through that unfamiliar territory in a way that makes it not arduous but exciting.
Perhaps most importantly, an outstanding reader will find the same things funny as the author did.
- Why does Grenville adopt different points of view to tell her story? How would the novel be different if it were narrated from only one perspective?
- Grenville enjoys using the names of her characters to suggest aspects of their personalities. What meanings can be found in Pixie Appleby Harley Savage? In Felicity Porcelline? In other names in the novel?
- Grenville paints the stark, blighted landscape around Karakarook in very vivid terms, as if it were another key character in the novel. What is the relationship between the natural setting and the novel's human characters?
- Harley and Douglas are two city dwellers who feel out of place among the people of the town. At one point, Harley tells herself, "This was the bush and they did things differently here." What does the novel suggest about the kind of person who flourishes in an urban environment as opposed to a rural one?
- In her efforts to collect artifacts for the Karakarook Heritage Museum, Harley encourages the citizens of the town to bring out all their "old horrors." What effects do various kinds of "old horrors" have on the way Grenville's characters live their lives?
- Felicity Porcelline devotes enormous energy toward maintaining flawless appearances in her life. Why, then, does she seem to seek out a romantic liaison that, if discovered, will cause all her carefully stage-managed appearances to crumble?
- Felicity is attracted and repelled by Freddy Chang in almost equal measures. Is this attraction/repulsion credible? How does race enter into Felicity's emotions toward Freddy?
- The three characters whose thoughts we are permitted to knowHarley, Douglas, and Felicityare all influenced by society's expectations about what a man or woman is supposed to be. For Harley and Douglas, the failure to fit a particular idea of gender role contributes to their status as outsiders. For Felicity, fitting the mold has become an obsession. Does Felicity's conformity make her any happier than Harley or Douglas? If so, why? If not, why not?
- It can be argued that a person's failings and self-criticisms engage sympathy only up to a point, after which we are more likely to feel annoyance and frustration. As you read the novel, did your feelings toward Harley and Douglas ever change in this way? Did your feelings toward them evolve in any other way? Do you think you were always responding to them as the author intended?
- Harley regards herself as having a "dangerous streak," and this sense of herself discourages her from seeking friendship and love. Is there anything really dangerous about Harley? If so, how would you describe her dangerousness?
- Both Harley and Douglas had famous fathers. How does this fact influence the life of each?
- Grenville's novel presents the reader with a host of symbols, including the bridge, Harley's heart trouble, and the dog that will never leave her alone. Which of the novel's symbols seem most important to you, and why?
- Is The Idea of Perfection really about the idea of perfection? What has it made you think about what perfection means and how the idea of perfection influences our attitudes and choices?